The best-kept secret about sex has little to do with body parts. Hetero or homo, it’s the mortal nature of erotic love that’s strictly taboo. “Death,” Blanche DuBois says, is “the opposite of desire,” a line that remains the single best explanation for the thudding silence accompanying passion’s end. As Bill and Hillary keep uncomfortably reminding us, our hearts inevitably outlast our genitals— though don’t bother to tell special prosecutor Ken Starr, a man whose lascivious probes into other people’s business suggest the knowledge would be lost on him.
Of course, playwrights have dealt again and again with the theme of desire’s fragility— a good deal of Restoration comedy, in fact, is based on nothing but the elaborate games people play to keep the juices flowing. William Wycherley is undoubtedly the master of this popular subgenre. His indelible erotic confection, The Country Wife, revolves around Mr. Homer, a character who poses as a eunuch not to rid himself of his lust but to give it the cover it needs to roam more freely.
Written in 1675, the play remains light years ahead of the rabid Puritanical hypocrisy that has led this country into an X-rated presidential impeachment trial. The males in Wycherley’s world readily admit what they’re after. (“A mistress should be like a little country retreat near the town,” one gentleman tells another, “not to dwell in constantly, but only for a night and away.”) In pursuit of married ladies, Homer and his cronies plot out their various dalliances like war maneuvers in a great military campaign. Our “impaired” hero has dangerously set his own sights on Mr. Pinchwife’s young bride, a country lass who’s developing a taste for London’s loose life despite the radical precautions of her jealous husband.
Don’t, however, expect to be aroused by director Shepard Sobel’s fusty revival, which includes such antique touches as italicized asides. The Pearl Theatre’s fair-to-middling resident acting company seems completely out of touch with the desire propelling the shenanigans forward. The actors should have sex on the mind, but also the pure love of social gamesmanship that only the leisure class had the time to perfect into art.
Ruth Gordon famously played Mrs. Pinchwife in the ’30s, while Julie Harris won favorable notices for the role two decades later. Attractive as she is, Patricia Dalen fails to leave much of an impression as the feisty young prisoner of marriage. Hope Chernov fares better as Alithea, Pinchwife’s loving sister, who tries to fend off an ardent suitor out of misguided loyalty to her foppish fiancé. Ray Virta has neither the panache nor wit that makes Homer such a devilishly seductive rogue. But not even a miscast actor can spoil the famous “china scene,” where several of Homer’s mistresses show up just as he’s about to win the object of his desire. It’s one of the funniest moments in English-language comedy— even better than the story about the American politician, the frisky intern, and the pizza box.
Linda Tripp would certainly have a field day with all the hot talk in The Erotica Project’s Cunning Stunts. An ensemble of eight women rap, croon, and whisper forbidden sexual fantasies, which inevitably turn out to be as poignant as they are steamy. The absurd price women pay for indulging their bodies is the overriding theme, though the production is more of a freewheeling collage than a carefully composed play.
Co-authored by Lillian Ann Slugocki and Erin Cressida Wilson, with additional material by John Patrick Shanley and Laurie Stone, the piece is framed with the story of a woman giving herself eye-rolling orgasms as she sits at the typewriter dreaming up literary pornography. One by one the characters emerge, breathlessly intoning their unspeakable secrets. A young woman recalls her first ménage à trois with her guilty Jewish boyfriend and his all-too-avid best friend. Mary Magdalen reveals what it was like to get screwed by the Lord then called a whore by his 12 best friends. (Sick of the bad-mouthing, the two lovebirds take off into the desert, where “for 40 days and nights they eat dried figs, drink red wine, and make love with a fury that sends the devil back down to hell.”) A mousy woman embarks on a new career as a tomato-throwing dominatrix, though somehow she always reverts back into a “bottom.”
Produced last summer at HERE, The Erotica Project works far better in the smoky, booze-filled environment of Joe’s Pub. Director John Gould Rubin exploits every square inch of the plush lounge, turning even the top of the bar into a stage. The jazz underscore and sultry lighting lull the audience into just the right Anaïs Nin mood. In an age when desire is in danger of becoming just another source of anxiety, it’s nice to sit back with a friend and listen to the old-fashioned sounds of hushed pleas and wicked groans.